Thinking

A talent for transformation? We hope so

It’s stating the obvious, but there’s no harm in that: every creative business needs the talent to deliver.

To make it happen, finding and holding onto the right people with the right talents – and then getting the best from them – is essential. 

Where do you start with this challenge? Right at the top, of course. Because what a leader may be really good at, and also not so good at, must be understood first.

The most successful entrepreneurs are astute and analytical enough to recognise their strengths and weaknesses in order to pull in the right resources to help a business take root and grow.

At the same time, this isn’t an easy area for many business leaders to explore. Creatives are optimistic types, which can make it very hard for some to recognise that they are not good at certain things. It takes a lot of soul-searching for someone to understand their own skills and strengths – and where they come up short. Plus it’s all too easy to be attracted to, and to want to bring in, those who are most like you – rather than seeking out those with the talents you lack, and perhaps a different take on the world.

Good at presenting? Great. What about your management skills, then? And what about all the detail of running the business? Does getting analytical with the data to unlock your business understanding tend to excite you – or just bore you silly? Is motivating and inspiring more your style?

The point is this: there is no sense is getting hung up on trying to be THE leader, with a finger in every pie. A leader who’s a control freak and can’t let go of the reins in any context never helped any business – in fact, such a person is often the single biggest blockage to serious business growth.

Sometimes it’s obvious what a particular leader is good at – but not always. There may be areas where a leader clearly excels, but others where someone is comfortable and feels competent – yet may not really have all the skills or understanding or empathy that’s needed. Equally there will be those areas where an owner-manager or founder knows they are weak and is happy to reach out for support.

So it’s that grey area in the middle that can make this a challenge, and one that may well need outside support to tackle.

In our work at Waypoint we often think we can see where the leaders we are supporting need help – but the challenge then can be to get them to see what we are seeing. Mostly, in fact, we don’t like to rely on our instinct in these matters, with so much as stake. It’s often better all-round to try to be analytical about strengths and weaknesses, because you’ll end up with something ‘objective’ that is easier for everyone to accept and act upon. 

How do you get analytical? Well, there are plenty of psychometric profiling tools out there that can help, and we are enthusiastic users ourselves. But the toolkit also extends well beyond the simplest psychometric profiling into more detailed 360 reviews and the like – and we sometimes use these too. We’ve also got good insights into the huge value to be derived by working with psychologically minded business coaches like our own board adviser Martin Palethorpe.

Whatever the route, what we want is a real perspective on the team work, communication, leadership and management skills of the individual – something personal and powerful and actionable.

Looking beyond your leadership, in part what we are talking about here, in relation to everyone in a team, is a business-first approach. You need the right person at the top, of course, who understands his or her role, but that needs to continue through the business – with the right people performing the right functions for the right business reasons.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But a great many business are not really built around the needs of the business but around those the business is being run by. That’s often because the leaders and founders have avoided taking the necessary tough calls and allowed the talent management and the recruitment strategy – and therefore the business – to drift.

If you think that description sounds a bit extreme, consider tackling this task: pretend you just bought your company as it looks today. Putting aside any relationships you have, get out that metaphorical blank sheet and decide what job roles the company really needs in order to thrive. As part of this process, what are the lines of connection between those roles that the business ideally needs? 

If you take this exercise seriously, we’ll be amazed if what you create is just like your real set-up, which will have been built in all likelihood around on-the-hoof recruitment decisions, ill-defined job roles, changing personal relationships, longstanding loyalties (perhaps even family ties) and more.

In fact, it’s a surprise if you produce anything meaningful at your first go. Many that have tried to carry out such an exercise with us have found it, as described, too hard to complete. Why? Because the existing relationships they have in the business, and how that defines the current shape of the business, make it incredibly hard to look beyond the present arrangement with any objectivity. 

The best way through this common impasse is to come at it with something ready-made. If a blank-sheet approach to the challenge is a bridge too far, how about fitting a conventional boardroom arrangement onto the business?

Lots of established creative businesses have a familiar look to them – a few million of turnover, a few dozen staff – and many will quickly see the benefit from a boardroom and company structure that just sticks to the main lines and keeps things logical and simple:

  • A managing director to take the lead on strategy and on managing a motivated team of people to deliver it. 
  • A creative/operations director who takes to lead on marrying the creative vision to customer requirements with an eye on delivery, timeliness and profitability.
  • A sales & marketing/business development director with a top line focus on the best possible margins.
  • A finance director to stay on top of the financial side of things, naturally.

Once it’s described like this, with a tier of management below the board and reporting to the relevant director, many leaders will be able – all of a sudden – to see only too well the benefit of this approach over the spider’s web of relationships and roles they are working with currently. Often it’s nothing short of a revelation.

This depersonalising of the business and its future needs can throw up another dynamic, too. By getting a leader to think dispassionately about the business we are also tacitly (or sometimes explicitly) asking them to assume the role of shareholder rather than employee. It’s all part of the necessary journey of letting go that any business owner contemplating a future sale will soon have to travel.

By starting to think like a shareholder, some can start to think the unthinkable about that top slot, too: what if the best managing director for the business isn’t the current owner-manager but someone else entirely? What if a sideways or downwards move is what’s needed for the founder or MD, while others step up?

Too radical? It might not be. A director of a business is meant to be acting in the best interests of the business. That’s the function and purpose of a board, after all. A director has to act properly in that role and put the business first, or he or she is not really a director at all.

With company hierarchies front of mind, it’s worth exploring this idea some more. If the boardroom directors of a business should have one set of priorities, and the shareholders another, in many companies confusion reigns since playing fast and loose with job titles is a way that some try to keep the interest and enthusiasm of those in important day-to-day middle management roles.

Is yours one of those businesses? You know the kind: somewhere where anyone who’s anyone in the business is called a ‘director’ when in fact most are managers of a small team, feeding performance through to the board from time to time, and nothing more.

The problem with this approach – or one problem, at least – is that the mentality of a manager with a steady, senior job but no boardroom responsibilities is usually very different to someone sitting on the board who is focused on keeping the company solvent, profitable and on the right side of the law.

Managers, indeed, are often protectionist in their behaviours and want to maintain the status quo, when what might be needed is something much more radical.

What we are talking about here, of course, is the individual accountability of those in a business. And we are saying that being clear about roles and responsibilities right across a business matters a great deal to its success. If the current set-up is messy and confused, of course this isn’t something that can be changed overnight, but it’s still important to start driving things in the right direction as quickly as possible, usually as part of a wider people-engagement exercise that can be applied right across the business.

How to find the talent you need

  1. Search and search some more. Finding the right people requires effort. You don’t want to be overwhelmed with candidates who all look the same, but you do want enough candidates to be selective. Try to reach out beyond your usual sources to find skilled candidates you might have missed.
  2. Hire your juniors on potential, your seniors on specifics Makes sense, doesn’t it? The further down you are hiring in the company, the more you are looking for potential rather than specific experience. When it comes to senior hires, you’ll need more specific skills, experience, and expertise.
  3. Embrace new talent and new approaches Some may worry about hiring someone too senior who might threaten their existing team. New teammates should be a decent fit within a culture, but also help to push the existing team to make it better. So always embrace the opportunity to hire strong talent.
  4. Consider the opportunity cost When you choose one person, you are rejecting everyone else. Use that choice wisely.

by Miles Welch 

Partner at Waypoint Partners

Waypoint Partners are a leading growth advisory firm, working with shareholders and their leadership teams in the creative, marketing and technology sectors to grow and realise value. Are you planning for agency growth in the next 1-3 years? We would be happy to help you achieve your growth targets. Please feel free to give us a call on T +44 (0) 203 282 7598 or send us an email via angela@waypointpartners.co.uk. We look forward to starting the conversation.

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